With its politicians hiking the Appalachian Trail or facing sex charges, South Carolina draws more than its share of bad publicity nationally. So here's some good news about South Carolina: By our reckoning, the heart of the Old South is the best state to drive in, by far. The country's lowest average gas price, plus cheap insurance, good legal protections and the sixth-best rating for infrastructure/safety, make the Palmetto State a dreamland for motorists.
Using the same measures, California is the worst state to be a driver — also by far. The Golden State has the third-lowest rating for infrastructure/safety, the third-highest gas prices and the fifth-highest insurance. Legal rights for drivers aren't so hot either.
Forbes put together its ratings of the best and worst states to drive using a number of published studies evaluating different elements of the driving experience. All the studies touched in major ways on pocketbook issues. Giving the studies equal weight, we used their 1-to-50 rankings to figure out which states were friendly to motorists, and which were not.
Here are the criteria we used, and the sources:
For many motorists, this is the single most important factor in the driving environment. Numerous sources provide regular updates on average fuel costs, which can vary among states by as much as 36 percent. We used data from GasBuddy.com. South Carolina and New Jersey have the lowest average prices, and Hawaii and Alaska the highest.
According to Insure.com, the average cost of coverage moves around even more than gas prices, with rates in some states nearly three times those of others. The cheapest are found in Maine and Vermont; the highest are in Louisiana and Michigan.
Infrastructure and safety
For 19 years the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, has cranked out a lengthy study — the latest is 109 pages — assessing each state on road and bridge infrastructure and safety-related indicators. Obviously better roadways reduce a motorist's costs in all kinds of ways, such as fewer gas-wasting delays and costly accidents. The latest study puts North Dakota and Montana at the top, and Rhode Island and Alaska at the bottom.
The National Motorists Association periodically rates the states on 17 criteria it says look at whether police and courts are "exploiting" motorists. Areas include enforcement practices, speed traps per capita, treatment of traffic ticket defendants and whether radar detectors are banned. The study concludes Wyoming and Idaho afford the most legal protections to motorists, and New Jersey and Ohio the least.
Eating South Carolina's dust on the best list are Nebraska and Missouri. Inhaling California's fumes on the worst list are Illinois and New York.
Generally the more populous states fare worse than those with low populations, but there are exceptions. Giant Texas ranks No. 6 on the best list, while tiny Rhode Island comes in No. 7 on the worst list.
Our compilations produced some surprising results. New Jersey misses being in the 10 worst list — it ranks 13th — only because the state's many oil refineries help give it the nation's second-lowest average gas prices. North Carolina, home of Nascar, misses being in the 10 best list — it ranks 13th — because of a low score on legal protections.
Generally thought to be a good place for motorists, Montana lands right in the middle of the 50 states. High ratings for infrastructure/safety and legal protections are offset by low rankings for gas and insurance prices.